Sonoma Family Life Magazine 2012 July : Page 10

A Gift for Special Children W Le I 10 SonomaFamilyLife By Shirah Madsen McDonald t’s a splendid spring day. The sky over Healdsburg’s Recreation Park is a beautiful cerulean blue. both grinning from ear to ear. A crowd of family and friends cheer from the bleachers. Despite appearances, these are no ordinary athletes. They are The Wonder League, a volunteer program for special needs children (aged 4–19) of Sonoma County. George Lawson, commissioner, says the inspiration for the program came to him years ago in Everett, WA, when he was working as an umpire. When he watched a small 13-year-old girl in a motorized wheelchair come up to bat, he grew worried. He noticed she didn’t have complete arms or legs. “I thought I was going to have to hit the ball for her,” Lawson recalls, “but then I was afraid I would break her arm.” Quick as a fl ash, the girl jumped out of her chair, grabbed the bat, and held it with such fi erceness that Lawson knew to get out of her way. www.sonomafamilylife.com The smell of freshly cut grass and a hint of popcorn linger in the air. The crack of a bat focuses attention on the baseball diamond where a young boy runs to fi rst base with an older boy at his side, July 2012

The Wonder League

Shirah Madsen McDonald

A Gift for Special Children

It’s a splendid spring day. The sky over Healdsburg’s Recreation Park is a beautiful cerulean blue.

The smell of freshly cut grass and a hint of popcorn linger in the air. The crack of a bat focuses attention on the baseball diamond where a young boy runs to first base with an older boy at his side, both grinning from ear to ear. A crowd of family and friends cheer from the bleachers. Despite appearances, these are no ordinary athletes. They are The Wonder League, a volunteer program for special needs children (aged 4–19) of Sonoma County.

George Lawson, commissioner, says the inspiration for the program came to him years ago in Everett, WA, when he was working as an umpire. When he watched a small 13-year-old girl in a motorized wheelchair come up to bat, he grew worried. He noticed she didn’t have complete arms or legs.

“I thought I was going to have to hit the ball for her,” Lawson recalls, “but then I was afraid I would break her arm.” Quick as a flash, the girl jumped out of her chair, grabbed the bat, and held it with such fierceness that Lawson knew to get out of her way.

She hit the ball immediately and, says Lawson, “took off with no legs.” Seeing her take her arms and plant and hop all the way around the field changed Lawson’s perspective. “I could hold this little girl in one hand. If she could do that, then I could do anything!” he recalls.

With this memory still in mind when he moved to healdsburg. Lawson knew he wanted to do more with these special children. He put Healdsburg’s Rotary Sunrise Club to the cause and in the spring of 2011 The Wonder League was born. The idea was simple.

“We divide into two teams. Each child has a ‘buddy’ to see him through the game. We go through the lineup and each kid hits. There are no outs. Everyone scores. If they want to run all the bases for a home run, they do. We go through the batting order The Wonder League and then the teams switch sides. Everybody wins,” Lawson explains.

The buddies are key to The Wonder League’s success. Last year both the Healdsburg High varsity baseball and softball teams played a game with the kids. The result was a magic, which still resonates today.

With a smile in his voice, Nick Mariani, a senior at Healdsburg High, remembers when his young buddy, Kevin, was running the bases.

“I was running with Kevin and then he decided to go into the outfield. He was laughing, I was laughing, and finally I picked him up and gave him a piggyback ride to home plate,” Mariani says, adding that he can’t wait to be involved again this year.

Deborah McCann appreciates the opportunity for her 16-year-old son Chase (who has Downs and autism) to play an organized sport. And the games make parents laugh.

“The kids hit the ball into the outfield. Both sides run to the outfield to get the ball, sometimes even the batters. Then they make a big circle around the ball and stare at it. Sometimes the kids run to first, then to second, then back to first, and then home. One kid got the ball he hit and then ran the bases. It’s fun to watch because they are just barely learning the rules,” she says.

Rob Rebbe, whose son James is autistic, says this is the first real thing he and James can do together.

“James loves being social. He loves his hat. He loves the uniform and to get out there. The team interaction helps him. The Wonder League gives James a venue for expanding what he is good at. Playing baseball lets James be a ham and at the same time lets him pretend he knows what he is doing,” he says.

Terry Tremblay, co-commissioner and volunteer pitcher, says each child is remarkable, recalling a hot day last June when he was concerned about a teenage player.

“I wanted to make sure he didn’t overexert himself, and when I asked him if he needed anything, he told me his sister was there and was looking out for him. His sister was 10,” he said of the display of loyalty and affection that touches him deeply and keeps him coming back game after game.

He’s not alone. Enthusiasm for this program is contagious. Pam Everson keeps things lively by announcing the “stats” of each player as they come up to bat. A rousing chorus of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” starts each game. Even the umpire, with his black sports coat, looks the part.

George Lawson knows he grew up lucky enough to be able to play baseball; now his Wonder League extends this chance to all. When Lawson’s 36-year-old son came to a game last season, it was 16-year-old Kyle who instructed him on how to throw. “Kyle has brain damage and his own coordination problems,” says Lawson, “and yet he knew he was a baseball player. He had the confidence to teach someone else what he knew.” Now that’s a gift.

You can catch The Wonder League’s “exhibition game” on July 4th at Recreation Park in Healdsburg. An old-fashioned parade, picnic, blow-up slides, and other festivities run all day from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Players and volunteers welcome, contact The Wonder League at HBWonderleague@gmail.com More info at wonderleague.org.

Read the full article at http://www.mydigitalpublication.com/article/The+Wonder+League/1104270/117074/article.html.

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